Photo courtesy of State First News
“be careful as you go
‘cos little people grow
and little people know
when little people fight
we may look easy pickings
but we got some bite” Little People from Les Miserables
Sunday October 9 was a special day for the Aragalaya. A vigil was planned to start off at Galle Face to commemorate Gotagogama’s six month anniversary and the heroes of the movement. We were remembering those who had lost their lives, been remanded by the PTA, handed arbitrary prison sentences and suffered state sponsored brutality during the attacks on May 9 and July 22 this year. The Rambukkana shooting victim’s family, as well as others who had lost loved ones, were invited to attend a simple ceremony of remembrance.
By 4 pm, the planned start time for the vigil, the first among us who gathered at Galle Face were reporting increasing numbers of armed police personnel, military vehicles and water cannons in the area. I rode my bike to Galle Face Green along with a few friends, reaching there around 5 pm. A crowd of 100 or so had assembled on the green, along with several media faces who attend these events regularly. There were members of the clergy, students, children, activists and people of all age groups; the signature motley crew that makes this movement the most inclusive one in the country.
The usual leisure activities continued on green, most of them totally oblivious to the vigil, as this was a regular Sunday evening. The actual vigil that was planned never commenced as battalions of police, riot squads in full masked regalia, military and plain clothes police started to surround the people in the most intimidating manner. The “illegal assembly message”, that is now familiar to most of us, bellowed on the police loudspeaker much to the displeasure of the crowd. They rightfully questioned what was illegal about a group of citizens meeting on the grounds that was dedicated to women and children by Governor Henry Ward in 1856.
Some of those gathered expressed their dissent to the police, iterating that they had every right to continue their vigil. Eventually, people were forced to scatter due to the imminent threat of being tear gassed; a police bowser was approaching ominously from the opposite side of the gathering. The next thing we could see was the police chasing hapless participants and causing panic among those gathered. It was senseless, scary and vengeful. From whichever video angle you view the scenes from that evening, the hugely disproportionate number of police to civilians and the manner in which they hunted and ran behind families with children is evident. The families had every right to be there. Conversely, what justified such a large police and military presence at a peaceful public assembly?
As a citizen who was participating in what was meant to be a peaceful commemoration of the dead, I feel outraged and violated. The preposterous response from the authorities who turned the narrative into a bad parenting event is humiliating and hurtful. We don’t take our children to Galle Face expecting them to be chased by police! Our children deserve better than this. Greta Thunberg was a child when she brought climate change as a main agenda item in every global discussion; our children should have the same right to stand up for their future that is being betrayed by the corruption and greed of selfish politicians.
The peaceful Aragalaya showcased the spirit of Sri Lankan diversity and surely is our most inclusive movement since independence. It’s a unified call to save our country for the future of our children. Anyone who suggests that we should leave them behind before heading to Galle Face Green on Sunday evening surely cares nothing about the real plight of our future generations.